State senate hearing on PFAS crisis held on Pew campus

By McKenna Peariso | 11/19/18 10:26am

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GVL / Laureen Horan

On Tuesday Nov. 13, Michigan Senator Gary Peters held a hearing titled "Local, State and Federal Response to PFAS Contamination in Michigan” in Grand Valley State University’s Loosemore Auditorium. The hearing was called to address a report about looming PFAS contamination that was submitted in 2012 by geologist Robert Delaney but did not see state action until just last year.

About 4,700 toxic chemicals are classified as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that have been used for decades by manufacturing companies and firefighting foam. These chemicals are most often used in commercial product packaging, while corporate dumping has exposed PFAS chemicals to groundwater and drinking water supplies across Michigan. Senior program manager and professor for GVSU’s Robert B. Annis Water Resources Institute Dr. Rick Rediske served on the hearing’s first panel to provide his input on the scientific and community factors in the PFAS crisis.

“Public pressure and litigation continue to be the major driver of PFAS response,” Rediske said. “These chemicals pose a unique hazard to human and environmental health because of their mobility, potential for bioaccumulation and lack of depredation. In humans they bind to the proteins in our blood and remain in our circulation.”

The earliest PFAS testings and report in Michigan come from Robert Delaney’s research that began in March 2010 near a firefighter training site. Delaney submitted the report to Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) in 2012 that compiled his findings and the potential threat PFAS posed for the community. 

“These chemicals are virtually indestructible, dangerous and widespread,” Delaney said. “The deeper I got into these problems the more I realized we have been contaminating our population for years.”

For six years, Delaney received no response on his report and the delay resulted in ongoing PFAS contamination that rose to extreme levels in several areas of Michigan.  Since 2017, the MDEQ has been testing well water and community water supplies and they have found that roughly 20 percent of the state’s drinking water have trace levels of PFAS contamination. These levels continue to rise as tests uncover further contamination in both residential and public water supplies, exposing thousands to the chemicals. There have also been cases of contamination in Michigan’s fish and wildlife industry, which has resulted in 'Do Not Eat' advisories for the entire Huron River as well as deer taken near Clarks Marsh in Oscoda Township. 

The worst cases of PFAS contamination arose in 2017, the first in July when the EPA declared an emergency in Parchment, Mich., a suburb of Kalamazoo. The second was in October when an elementary school near Grand Haven, Mich. discovered PFAS contamination high above the health advisory level and made the emergency switch to bottled water. Some Michigan residents have been dealing with severe PFAS contamination in their local water supply.

“In 2017 my blood was tested and was found to have 5 million parts per trillion,” Wynn-Stelt said. “It’s extraordinarily high and no one can really tell me what this is going to do. Many of us on my street were contaminated as well and we eventually learned that this was due to industrial waste that had been dumped by Wolverine Worldwide.” 

The levels of PFAS in Wynn-Stelt’s blood are 750 times the national average and pose many concerns about how these high PFAS levels are affecting the many children who live in her community. PFAS contamination has been reported to affect growth, development and learning abilities in children, suppress the human immune system and increase the risk of cancer.

“While scientific research is ongoing, health effects concerning suppression of immune systems increased instances of kidney and testicular cancer have been reported,” Rediske said. “PFAS illustrates the risks of an irregulatory structure that assumes chemicals are safe until proven harmful and places the burden of proof on residents and agencies ill-equipped to produce scientific knowledge on chemical compounds that are only substantially known by private producers.”  

Aid from the State of Michigan in the form of bottled water and water filtration systems have been administered to areas of high PFAS contamination including Stynn-Welt’s neighborhood and 28 schools. Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder formed the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) to begin testing PFAS contamination in Michigan while working toward understanding the health effects and how to cleanup and remove the chemicals. MPART's director, Carol Issacs, attended the Nov. 13 hearing to provide insight on PFAS research and prevention projects.

“The response team has been instrumental in creating investigation and response protocol to identify and protect regions of the state with known levels of PFAS contamination,” Issacs said. “34 sites of PFAS legacy contamination are currently being tested and cleaned. Legal action against Wolverine Worldwide has been taken to benefit this part of Michigan for full remediation and cleanup.”

Wolverine Worldwide is currently facing more than 100 individual lawsuits from local residents bundled with the State of Michigan's lawsuit, pushing the company to pay for cleanup related to the company's toxic dumping. Wolverine Worldwide has provided millions of dollars in the form of bottled water and filtration systems while the DEQ and many other state departments and organizations continue to search for a solution. 

A statewide public advisory council has been organized for the State of Michigan in order to share resources and advance research and restoration projects. Testing and research efforts are in effect, but it will likely take extensive time before there is definitive action. At the Nov. 13 hearing, Rediske urged the state to engage with the local community to address PFAS contamination sites and to develop educational resources to prevent further depredation. Rediske’s opening testimony can be heard at www.lanthorn.com/podcasts

In terms of next steps, Peters noted the need for a PFAS level standard, communication with the local community and further research into different compounds that may be less harmful to the environment.

“We need a federally regulatory standard that is nationwide,” Peters said. “We need some sort of action within the next five years. We need to look at alternatives to stop this stuff from getting into the environment.”

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